Halloween, Blackface, and Cultural Appropriation

Not long ago, a photo was forwarded to Time.com from a 2001 yearbook of Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, who was a teacher at the time, dressed in an Aladdin costume that included brownface makeup.  It caused quite a stir, with some people criticizing him as being racist.

Since it’s Halloween, it seems like a good time to talk about blackface/brownface makeup as well as the idea of cultural appropriation.

To start off, it’s worth noting that I am white, and have an undeniable level of privilege because of that.  I grew up in a small Canadian town that was mostly white, with some South Asian, Indigenous, and a few assorted other folks tossed in for good measure.  I now live in a large Canadian city that is quite multicultural and multi-ethnic, but in relative terms has a very small population of Black people.

To be perfectly honest, it’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve even heard the issue brought up about how offensive blackface is, and learned about its disturbing origins.  Wikipedia says:

“The practice gained popularity during the 19th century and contributed to the spread of racial stereotypes such as the ‘happy-go-lucky darky on the plantation’ or the ‘dandified coon.'”

Yikes.  For most of my life, I didn’t have the slightest clue about any of that.  It’s not a matter of willful ignorance, either; I just simply had never been exposed to that information.

If I look back to 2001, when I was in my early 20’s and living in the same city Justin Trudeau was, if someone had shown up at a Halloween party I was attending wearing blackface as part of, say, a Jackson Five costume, I would have thought that person was just going full-out getting into costume, and not given it a second thought.

Would I consider that okay now?  No.  Looking through the lens I have now, I see why it’s offensive.  From the lens I had then, I would’ve had no idea.  Does that mean I was racist then?  I don’t think so.  Was I clueless?  Sure.  Was I clueless because of my white privilege?  Probably.

But cluelessness without any exposure to corrective information doesn’t make someone racist.  On the other hand, receiving corrective information and then choosing to ignore it is probably a fairly good indicator of racism.

What seems less clear to me is the idea of cultural appropriation as it pertains to Halloween costumes.  I’m really not sure how much my views on this are shaped by the privilege of being a member of the dominant culture, and also by my perspective that going too far with political correctness doesn’t end up sending the positive message that it’s supposed to, and if anything may weaken it.

My feeling on it is this – Halloween costumes are all about caricature, and pretending to be someone you’re not for one night.  There’s often a twist of ridiculous, along with a hearty helping of offensiveness.  Whether it’s as simple as the sexy nurse or nun, or a more extreme example like the “mental patient” in a straightjacket, Halloween often involves taking extreme stereotypes and then ratcheting up the extremeness to whole new levels.

While some people dressing up as someone of another race or culture may have racist or other biased views, I think a lot of people do not.  Poor taste, sure, but that’s pretty pervasive on Halloween.  I’m not convinced that automatically translates into espousing those particular stereotypes the other 364 days of the year.

It reminds me somewhat of mental illness stigma, where stereotypes get attached to labels, but simply changing the words isn’t going to make the stigma go away.  Similarly, racial and cultural stereotypes may be linked to certain types of costumes or physical characteristics, but doing away with the costumes and the makeup isn’t going to make the underlying prejudice go away.  And it’s that deep, underlying prejudice that results in the most harm.

That being said, I recognize that minority cultural groups do get offended by this, and that needs to be respected, as it matters far more than whatever the “they” of political correctness have to say.

Still, I think there are probably better ways to focus our attention.  There seem to be a lot of racist, hateful, angry white men running around in the U.S. right now (and other places, for that matter), and I think they pose a far greater threat than people who dressed up in brownface 20 years ago and white kids wearing Black Panther character costumes this Halloween.

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19 thoughts on “Halloween, Blackface, and Cultural Appropriation

  1. Meg says:

    Yeah, I definitely don’t like the similar issue of dredging up mistakes from someone’s distant past. People today are searching for dirt on politicians–Tweets from twenty years ago (how long has Twitter been around?), photographs of offensive Halloween costumes, etc. It’s getting out of hand, because like you said, back in the day, the guy was just trying to dress up as Aladdin. If he was dressing up as Shrek, he’d have green face, which would offend…. uh, extraterrestrials? I definitely think people of those races who are offended and hurt by brown face should speak up. I just don’t think it can be applied retroactively to someone in costume a few decades ago. That’s underhanded, ya know? Great blog post!!

    • ashleyleia says:

      I don’t have an issue with bringing things up from the past if they’re things that would have been clearly recognized as offensive, harmful, or illegal at the time. But judging moral offense by today’s standards can be really problematic.

  2. carol hopkins says:

    Well said. Bravo! I am also Canadian and have lived in rural communities as well as large cities. You make excellent points here. There does need to be more awareness around cultural appropriation and black-face/brown-face. I love how you used Shrek as an example. I honestly felt bad for Trudeau. I honestly do not think he is a racist by any stretch of the imagination.

  3. Paula Light says:

    I’m 58, white, and I’ve always known blackface was offensive, but I don’t know how I know. Maybe I once had a super enlightened teacher back in New York or New Jersey. I would not have simply picked it up out of the air. But there are a lot of other more subtle cultural appropriation type of things that I have been clueless about. I still catch myself saying “Indian” and then switch to “Native American,” but that now may be wrong too. I have in the passed dressed as a gypsy, which now you are supposed to call Romany (I think), and I wouldn’t do it again. I try to learn and do my best. As a member of a minority group (Jews), I feel that people can tell if you’re good-intentioned. I think I can tell.

  4. Brendan Birth says:

    I have no problem with the issue of brownface/blackface being brought up, but (granted, I’m speaking as someone from the dominant culture) it’s important as to how it’s brought up. I think that, if used the right way, such revelations can serve as teachable moments about cultural appropriation. And I think that would be a good thing. But instead it’s more often used to try and bring politicians down than to teach anything.

  5. Johnzelle Anderson says:

    This one had me cringing a bit. But you handled the topic with finesse so I’ll leave it that 🙃

  6. Hannah Celeste says:

    Yeah, this is a tricky issue. I agree that people might dress up as someone from another culture with perfectly good intentions, and they just need to be told WHY it is offensive in order to learn and grow. At the same time, I would be pretty offended if I saw someone dressed as “a Jew” or something to that effect for Halloween, eek.

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